With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect.
The penultimate installment in this series looks at arguably the biggest wild card in the Big Ten this season, the PJ Fleck-led Minnesota Golden Gophers. Fleck’s unique energy has captured media attention and seems to have already helped in recruiting, but will he be able to win right away? If the Gophers put it together, this could be a major West matchup in late November.
Returning starters: 13 (7 offense, 6 defense)
Returning experience: 57 percent
2016 record: 9-4 (5-4 B1G)
Coach: PJ Fleck (1st season)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2016 S&P+ Overall: 42nd
2016 S&P+ Offense: 84th
2016 S&P+ Defense: 23rd
2017 S&P+ Projection: 47th
Minnesota was a good, but not great, football team in 2016. With a strong defense and explosive running game but a shaky passing attack hurt by a woefully inconsistent offensive line, the Gophers struggled to get over the hump against top-level teams.
Against top-30 S&P+ teams (PSU, Wisconsin, Iowa): 0-3
Against everyone else: 9-1
Minnesota sailed past Colorado State, Northwestern, and Washington State in the Holiday Bowl — all top-50 teams — but couldn’t find a way to get it done against the next class of competition despite coming close several times. The Gophers started out 3-0, including a nice win over the Rams, but missed consecutive big opportunities in their first two Big Ten games. First, it was a heartbreaking OT loss to eventual conference champs Penn State in which Minnesota blew multiple late 3-point leads. Then Mitch Leidner and the offense wasted a strong defensive effort in a brutal 14-7 home loss to Iowa, and things were looking bleak. A 4-0 run against the bottom tier of the conference (Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois, Purdue) set up one last opportunity against a trio of West division foes, but the Gophers were again unable to capitalize. Road losses to Nebraska and Wisconsin rendered an impressive win over Northwestern meaningless. All in all, it was a regular season most Power 5 teams could be proud of. 8 wins for a major conference team is something to build off, especially in a head coach’s first season.
But then came the controversy. A Title IX investigation into an alleged sexual assault led to 10 suspensions, and Minnesota players reacted by threatening to boycott their bowl appearance. Their coach, former defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, voiced his support for the questionable boycott, which led to his firing shortly after the bowl victory (the boycott never materialized).
In comes PJ Fleck, the outgoing wunderkind who led Western Michigan to an undefeated regular season in 2016. This offseason has been filled with talks of rowing the boat, being elite, and countless other Fleckisms, but the on-field product is entirely an unknown at this point.
Fleck’s biggest problem heading into the season is that he doesn’t have a quarterback. For as bad as Leidner was, the one thing he did provide was stability, starting 41 games over four years. And while he never delivered on his promise as a passer (36 career TDs to 32 career INTs), he at least could move the ball capably at times and was always a decent rushing threat. He’s gone now, which might seem like a good thing for Minnesota fans, but that’s before they look at Leidner’s potential replacements. The front-runners are Conor Rhoda, a senior and former two-star recruit with 5.5 YPA on 17 career passes, and Demry Croft, a sophomore who somehow manages to make Rhoda’s YPA look elite (Croft’s, also on 17 attempts, is a baffling 2.0). Redshirt freshman Seth Green and true frosh Tanner Morgan are active participants in an ongoing competition, too. Fleck has said he plans on naming one starter and avoiding a platoon system, but he might wait until late August to do so.
Whoever does win the job better be good at handing the ball off, because they’ll be doing that a lot. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks make up one of the better RB duos in the conference. Smith is a versatile back coming off an 1100-yard season, and Brooks is a home run threat looking to become more well-rounded. Leading receiver Drew Wolitarsky is gone, but Fleck inherits a pair of promising young wideouts in Rashad Still and Tyler Johnson. Tight end Brandon Lingen is a solid safety valve for whoever wins the QB job.
The best move Fleck has made thus far in his tenure at Minnesota is poaching offensive line coach Ed Warinner from Ohio State. Warinner is one of the best assistants in the Big Ten and will almost certainly make a major impact on the OL right away. The Gophers badly need an improvement in that area.
Several top contributors return from a defense that ranked 23rd in S&P+ last season, but depth is a major issue. The best player on this defense is probably defensive tackle Steven Richardson, who dominated the interior to the tune of 11 TFLs, 7 sacks and 2 forced fumbles as a junior. Andrew Stelter is no slouch at the other DT spot, making that arguably the strongest position group on the roster outside of running back. Fleck is no doubt hoping two solid starters emerge out of a trio of sophomore defensive ends: Carter Coughlin, Tai’yon Devers, and all-name team candidate Winston DeLattiboudere. Jonathan Celestin and Blake Cashman are back to the lead the linebackers, but several key pieces at that position are gone. Same with the secondary, which loses both starting corners and safety/leading tackler Damarius Travis. Antoine Winfield Jr. and Duke McGhee are a capable safety tandem, but as I mentioned earlier, there just isn’t much depth on this defense. If any of the expected contributors get hurt, Minnesota could have a hard time stopping teams.
Players to Know
RB Shannon Brooks
Rodney Smith is probably a top 5 running back in the conference, so you’ve most likely heard of him by now. Don’t sleep on Brooks. The junior has piled up 14 touchdowns in two seasons despite only receiving limited touches and is a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball.
DT Steven Richardson
Richardson is one of the most underrated players in the Big Ten, much of which simply has to do with the position he plays. Guys in the trenches don’t get much publicity (unless they’re Ndamukong Suh), but Richardson’s presence in the interior makes a huge difference. Brad North, J.B. Butler, and Tommy Doles will have their hands full when the Gophers come to Evanston.
WR Rashad Still
Whoever ends up winning the QB job will have a pretty nice go-to target in the 6-foot-5 Still. The junior caught just 18 balls last season but averaged 19.4 yards per catch and has reportedly made major strides this offseason.